Backyard Dreams: Pimpleton, Sullivan Remember Childhood Friend While Chasing NFL Dream
The NFL Draft begins Thursday night and former Central Michigan wide receivers JaCorey Sullivan and Kalil Pimpleton are hoping to realize their childhood dream of reaching the NFL together.
Pimpleton and Sullivan grew up together in Muskegon. Along with their friends Andrew Ward and Da’Monte Neal, they were always playing football. Ward said dreaming about playing in the NFL was a constant topic of conversation, especially for Sullivan and Pimpleton.
“It always was the NFL, man. Mainly for those guys. I had dreams and aspirations to play but it wasn’t as deep as those guys, mainly JaCorey and Kalil,” Ward said. “They always dreamed and talked about it.”
But everyone in the friend group imagined themselves playing high school ball for the Muskegon Big Reds.
“We played on Saturdays [growing up] but the day before every game we would go up on Friday nights and see Muskegon [High School] play,” Pimpleton said.
High school football is a big deal in Muskegon. The Big Reds won three state championships in the 2000’s under legendary head coach Tony Annese.
They won it again in 2017 and have made it to the state championship game seven times since 2012.
“Like I said when we were younger, being there on Friday night and watching those guys, you couldn’t wait to get to that level. Once we finally got to that level, you really just tried to enjoy the whole thing,” Pimpleton said.
Playing for the Big Reds meant a lot to the four friends, especially Da’Monte Neal.
“He grew a lot over the years playing football, especially with the Big Reds. He loved it,” his mother April Neal said. “I mean when I say he loved it – he LOVED it.”
Neal lacked some of the physical gifts that Pimpleton, Sullivan and Ward had, but his mother said he was constantly pushing them toward their goals.
“Yeah they talked about [the NFL] a lot. Da’Monte was driven to see – even if he didn’t see himself playing – he pushed them. He pushed JaCorey and Kalil to do that because he saw their ambition and that drive in him and they made him a stronger football player as well.”
The four friends became integral parts of one of the most talented teams in Muskegon history.
As a senior in 2016, Pimpleton — standing just 5-foot-8 and weighing 165 pounds — was a finalist for the Mr. Football award.
Pimpleton did it all for the Big Reds, playing some quarterback, some slot receiver and returning kicks.
Sullivan, Ward and Neal all had great years as well and Sullivan and Ward also earned All-State honors.
Together, they helped lead Muskegon to the state championship game, where the Big Reds suffered a heartbreaking loss on a last-minute touchdown against Orchard Lake St. Mary’s.
For Da’Monte Neal, that was the end of his football playing days.
But Pimpleton, Sullivan and Ward all fielded Division I offers. Sullivan committed to Central Michigan, Ward to Nebraska and Pimpleton to Virginia Tech.
After his freshman season, Pimpleton decided to transfer. Sullivan went into recruiting mode.
“I think he was trying to go to [Northern Illinois],” Sullivan said. “And I’m like ‘bro? C’mon bro, like why would you go to NIU out of all schools? Yeah, their colors are nice and, you know what I’m saying, all dandy and all that. But like, come to Central [Michigan] man. You’re going to be playing with me. You know how [good] we were when we were playing 7-on-7. We can do that on the field again. We were doing it in high school. We can just run it back again.’”
Pimpleton ultimately became a Chippewa and a short time later Ward announced he’d be joining them.
“After they found out I was transferring –Kalil had already transferred here from Virginia Tech — and just the thought of being back here with my brothers, being back together and playing on the same field. Nothing else was really ringing a bell in my head at the time.”
The childhood friends were reunited once again. The three of them shared an apartment as they got a chance to live out every kid’s dream of playing college ball with their lifelong friends.
Playing at Central Michigan also allowed Da’Monte Neal and other Muskegon friends to come and root them on.
“It was crazy man, just being able to have Da’Monte and the rest of our circle come here because it’s only a two hour drive from Muskegon,” Ward said. “So just having us all back together after the games and things like that. We got plenty of pictures together after the games and you know, just good times and celebrating back at our apartment and stuff. Those were the best times, really.”
In the middle of the 2019 season, Ward would see his football dreams come to an abrupt end in a game against Bowling Green.
“I just happened to be on kickoff return that game unfortunately,” he said. “I went to block somebody on a kickoff return and I kind of lead with my head wrong and I fractured my C5. So my body went limp and it was just an awkward hit really.”
From the sidelines, he continued to support his team and his lifelong friends. Pimpleton and Sullivan made sure he felt supported too.
“They both dedicated a game to me and wore the number 43 for a whole game,” Ward recalls. “They both actually scored in it, man! So that was a good moment for me and I realize that that really helped me a lot more than I thought at the time.”
Pimpleton would go on to lead the MAC in receiving yards and total receptions that season. Sullivan finished tied for third in the conference in both categories. Both were named First Team All-MAC and helped the Chippewas make an incredible turnaround.
After finishing 1-11 the season before Central Michigan made it to the MAC Championship game in 2019.
“[That season] was good, it was a movie,” Sullivan said. “We were getting a lot of feedback from fans and our family. We had the majority of the whole city come to the games and it was just awesome.”
Their dominance on the field together was everything Sullivan and Pimpleton had dreamed about.
But in January of 2020, they received news that would change everything.
Da’Monte Neal had been shot and killed in a Muskegon home. He was 21 years old.
“That’s my brother, man,” Pimpleton said. “We’d been through a lot together.”
“TaeTae was a hard working person. A loving person,” Sullivan said. “He would always show love to anybody. Like, you come around him with any one of his boys and he was going to show you love and treat you like his own.”
“I know they say there’s no such thing as perfect but he was perfect in my eyes.” April Neal said. “He was a great kid, you know? He was loved by a lot of people.”
Neal was an older brother, a son, a friend, a boyfriend, and just five months before his death he had become a father.
“Him becoming a father it made him just more ambitious of his dreams, his goals,” his mother said. “When he found out he was going to have a daughter he was super excited.”
April Neal said Da’Monte Neal’s daughter, Queen Harmony Sheree, makes her feel like a piece of her son is still alive.
“From her eyes, the way she sleeps. She sleeps just like him, you know? His brother came downstairs the other day and saw her sleeping he was like ‘ooo, you sleep just like your daddy. You sleep just like my brother.’ So she’s just a spitting image of my son and they say once you lose a life then you gain one. So I know I gained a life and she’s living through him.”
Every person interviewed for this story came back to that one word when remembering Da’Monte Neal.
“Strong-willed and very determined. A protector. Most of all a very great protector of his family,” Ward said.
“That’s our big brother, just protective of us and so supportive,” Pimpleton said.
The news of Neal’s death hit Ward, Pimpleton and Sullivan hard. They were all in Muskegon on holiday break when the shooting happened.
“We immediately got back here to Mt. Pleasant so we could be at our apartment together,” Ward said. “That was the biggest part, just being together.”
“We just supported each other throughout that process. It was a healing process for us so we just made sure we were doing fine mentally. That was it, the mental piece was everything,” Sullivan said.
The three friends remain committed to preserving Neal’s memory and legacy any way they can.
“We’ve talked about JaCorey and Kalil’s skills camp that they’re hosting in Muskegon every year. We’re talking about changing that name in dedication to Da’Monte also,” Ward said. “We called him Slick, so we were going to call it Slick Skills Camp.”
The three of them have necklaces they often wear with Neal’s picture and Sullivan has a picture of Neal tattooed on his bicep.
“I try to flex during football games on like first downs and stuff so people can see his face,” Sulivan said. “I want the world to know who he is and what he stands for and everything too.”
Sullivan and Pimpleton inch ever closer to fulfilling those backyard dreams of reaching the NFL with their best friend.
But without Neal, Pimpleton said there’s a piece of the dream that’s missing.
“I play for him because we had this running joke that when I did make it he was going to be my bodyguard. Me and him are the same size,” Pimpleton said with a smile. “You usually have somebody that’s bigger than you being your bodyguard but we used to always say that when I made it, he was going to be me and JaCorey’s body guard.”
“He was always a little aggressive,” Ward said. “So he definitely would have been a great body guard for Kalil. He always said it too.”
Ward said that ever since his injury and Neal’s death, he feels a sense of responsibility to take over that role of protector for Sullivan and Pimpleton.
April Neal said she knows Da’Monte would be proud of how hard Sullivan and Pimpleton have worked to get to this point.
“He loved them like his own brothers and he wanted them to make it. He wanted to see them make it and that’s what they’re doing,” she said. “I know he’s with them, he’s watching over them and I know he’s just spying down on them right now, happy.”
“He’s definitely one of the reasons that I’m going so hard today,” Pimpleton said. “I know that he would love to see us make it to that point. So even though he’s not here physically with us he is our bodyguard spiritually.”